(As told to Roughstock, words and photos courtesy of Jim Van Cleve)
I was just about 14- or 15-years-old, playing with a band called Ricochet on Rebel Records. We were playing a festival, the Cherokee Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina, and I was missing school to be there. Doyle Lawson was on the bill and I saw this guy playing the banjo, kind of running his hand over the top of the neck. I remember wondering if it was some kind of trick song. A buddy was with me and he said, “That’s Barry Abernathy” and went on to explain that Barry had missing fingers on one hand. I moved closer to the stage and it was just amazing. There’s no other word for it. I didn’t get to meet Barry that day but his playing stuck with me.
Fast forward about 2-3 years. I was jamming with some friends in a hallway at Bluegrass First Class in Asheville. I was about 16 or 17 by then. Along came Barry and he sang a few with us. I just thought he was such a cool, fun guy, and we really hit it off. The next time we crossed paths, it was when Barry called to encourage me about a fiddle
position that was possibly available with Doyle’s band. I was in college in Greensboro and trying to do the smart, objective thing; be studious and focused, so I said ‘no’ more than once.
About 6 months later, however, my grandfather passed away and I was just really down and disillusioned. I guess I needed a change or a new challenge. I was working a show with Scott Vestal, and driving back home from Nashville; in a hurry for a test I had to take the next morning. In order to get to class on time, I had to park anywhere possible, and ended up having may car towed, but I took the test. Later, my roommate told me that Doyle Lawson had called. I called back and Doyle basically told me that he needed to move on if I wasn’t interested. It was 1998 and I was about 17-18 years old. I left school and jumped on a bus with Doyle’s band. That was the beginning of so many things for me, and it’s when my friendship with Barry Abernathy took root and it’s grown ever since. We’ve now been playing together off and on for almost 25 years and they guy is a brother to me.
Barry Abernathy is not just a world class musician. He’s a world class person. Sometimes we even fight like brothers, but we always come back around. I love and respect the man.
Barry is one of the most driven, determined human beings you’ll ever meet. He’s not a detail guy, but he manages to launch into an idea and make it work, learning and adjusting along the way. You don’t ever have to wait on Barry. “Ready, fire, aim” is his whole thing in the very best of ways. He’s got the willingness and drive to tackle anything and make it a success, and he has an intense desire to create. We balance each other out. He sees the broad brushstrokes, and I scrutinize the details. That kind of relationship creates momentum. We are partners and friends.
Barry would bend over backwards for his friends. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. It’s just Barry. He might be hours away, but if he gets a call for help, he doesn’t ask a lot of questions. He will drop everything and drive hours to get there. If you’re in a foxhole, Barry’s the guy you want there with you. Barry is a really great husband and father. He’s been two different dads; raising his girls and now the young’uns. He always does things to the best of his knowledge and ability. He’s truthful and just and tries to be level-headed. He has a big heart and he adores his family. I’ve watched him for years on the road and he’s as rock-solid as they come. There are plenty of stories about the life of a musician, but Barry always remains an upright guy and a devoted family man.
Now, he’s bullheaded, for sure, but you can’t help but love him. Honestly, he’s one of the more stubborn humans I’ve ever known, and yet he’s willing to listen and learn. He’s just a genuine guy. If you know him at all, well, you know him. Barry is authentic and he’s an open book. It’s no wonder so many folks were eager to be a part of the Barry Abernathy and Friends album. He’s just got a really warm and inviting personality and he’s the kind of guy people want to support. It was pure joy making this album. I’d been telling him for 20 years he needed to do a project. Barry is one of my favorite singers of all time, but he’s reluctant to put himself forward. He does what’s necessary to help the team, stepping into the light if needed, but he’s really humble.
Barry is always in that creative place. He’s an executive producer at heart; loves to look at songs and think of who they may be good for. He brought that gift to this project. Frankly, it’s a grand slam. I knew we were making something great.
Barry was in the studio for the tracking and his vocals. We do a lot of sessions, but that is one I’ll never forget. It was a joyous feeling. The vibe was completely laid back and Barry was so trusting and relaxed. There was a great level of trust and respect among the players. Some of the guest artists were aware that Barry was facing a surgery that could damage his singing voice. Barry was candid about the impetus for the project. The thought was definitely there about how important it was during the recording; a sense that we were working on something really special.
This is an album full of bluegrass crowd pleasers, and really great songs well-played and well-sung. And the best part? Barry’s surgery was a success and he still has his voice.
The new album is kind of a full circle moment. Early in my career with Doyle and with Mountain Heart, I was a young dude with all kinds of ideas, surrounded by legends. I was inexperienced, but Barry cleared a space for me to grow in creativity; to develop as a musician, engineer and producer. You could say that Barry gave me a voice. By fate, ironically, I have been able to repay that just a bit by giving him his voice, so to speak. At a time when thought he may never sing again, I was able to help make this album a reality, and I am so honored to have that opportunity to pay back.
By his strength of character, Barry made room for me.
Now, that’s a friend.